You may recall that I read Book #2 in Michael Murphy’s Depression Era mystery series, All That Glitters, first and liked it so much that I went back and read Book #1, The Yankee Club. Now Book #3 is out, The Big Brush-Off, and I couldn’t wait to see what kind of shenanigans our ex-Pinkerton agent turned mystery author and Broadway-turned-Hollywood starlet would get into next. If you haven’t read Books #1 or #2, links to our reviews of those appear at the end of this article. If you like clever repartee mixed with a fun historical whodunit and a bit of glamour mixed in then this series is going to make your day.
Now the question is always, “Should I read this series in sequence?” Any series obviously benefits from being read in the order written, and I wish I had read this one in order. Book #1 sets the stage (pun intended) for everything that comes afterward. That said, it’s really up to you whether you do that with this series or not. Unlike sci-fi or fantasy, this is at least set in our recent historical world even if the main characters’ lives do change quite a bit from one book to the next.
If you haven’t read The Yankee Club or All That Glitters, I’d advise you to read those reviews (links below this article) instead of this one because it is going to contain spoilers no matter how you look at it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And for those of you who have read one or both of the first two books, The Big Brush-Off is deep enough into the series that this will be a brief review to avoid as many spoilers as possible.
To give The Big Brush-Off a point in time – it’s June 1935 and the Great Depression is still in full swing, although there are incremental signs of hope on the horizon. One of those favorable signs is the formation of the WPA. Screwball comedies are still in high demand as a way to forget your troubles, and Jake’s wife Laura is a master of the screwball comedy.
Blackie Doyle has been Jake Donovan’s alter ego in his highly successful mystery novels. Everyone loves Blackie, including Jake. The only problem is that Blackie isn’t being very cooperative right now. Now any good author will tell you that they may invent a character but once they create that character, the character takes on a life of its own and often goes off in entirely unplanned directions. And that’s exactly what Blackie’s doing…and the direction he’s going in looks like it’s going to kill him off no matter what Jake does to try to prevent it.
Nobody can figure out what’s wrong with Blackie. Jake’s literary agent thinks maybe Jake has gotten too comfortable or wrapped up in his Hollywood lifestyle. Jake thinks he may have become too absorbed in all of the real-life homicides that keep dropping into his lap on top of all the other life changes he’s had to adapt to, which have been abundant. For whatever reason, the readers just aren’t buying his books the way they have been and Blackie is not helping matters at all. Blackie just seems tired of the whole game. That happens to characters sometimes when they’ve said all they need to say…and it happens to authors sometimes when they run out of excitement for a series…or when life keeps getting in the way.
“The figure, whose face, as always, was clouded in shadows, stepped into the room and approached the bed. I tried to warn Katie. I struggled to shout, but the words didn’t come. The two struggled until the shadowy figure swung the baseball trophy then shot the young girl. She managed to snatch her rosary before dying in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor.
I woke up with a choked groan…
In the hotel bathroom I splashed cold water on my face and stared into the mirror at tired eyes. Why had I revisited my last Pinkerton case, something I hadn’t dreamed of in more than a year? At least the vision had taken my mind from the dreaded task that awaited me, a confrontation with my editor, Mildred Hawthorn…
I’d gone toe to toe with mobsters, Nazis, and a Japanese spy, but Mildred was in a class by herself. She was harder on me than my old man, who taught me to box; coarser than my drill sergeant in the Great War.”
Jake isn’t sure what the problem is but he’s really worried. He doesn’t want to be just a Hollywood husband, no matter how glamorous the lifestyle or how much he loves Laura. And Laura is poised for a huge break, staring opposite Cary Grant. Her career is off and running while Jake’s feels like it’s stalling out at second base.
To try to give Blackie and himself a break, Jake hops a train to Pennsylvania to get back in touch with his career as a Pinkerton agent. He hopes that kind of reality check will get his mind back into Blackie/detective mode. Hanover, PA has an unsolved murder that has always tormented Jake, the murder of Katie Caldwell. He knows he should have been able to find that killer, the one who got away. This is a good time to dig back into the teenager’s death that rocked this small town and finally put that killer behind bars.
What Jake hadn’t bargained for was the inertia that can creep into small towns, the denial, and the pressure to let bygone murders stay buried. Some people in town want to keep things the way they are at any cost – don’t rock the boat – hang onto the status quo. After all, people in small towns don’t ever want to think someone in their town could possibly do anything as horrible as commit murder because they know and trust everyone in their town. It feels much safer to them to think it must have been some drifter coming through town, a stranger now long gone and best forgotten. Of course the opposite is actually true – if there’s a killer among you then you need to find that killer asap before they decide to do it again. And God help you if that killer thinks you might know something that could give them away…then you could be next.
Can Jake and Laura solve this very cold case or will the killer stop at nothing to stop them? Will working on the case get Blackie back in the mindset his readers have come to crave? Will Jake get his mystery writing mojo back?
Each book in this series has taken our detecting pair off to a new part of the country and into new, totally different adventures, yet the underlying thread stays the same. The dialogue is just as witty in The Big Brush-Off as it was in the first two novels, the relationship dynamics are still very reminiscent of The Thin Man, and the twists and turns are still tons of fun. Jake may be having a bit of writer’s block but it’s clear that Michael Murphy is not. I can’t wait to see what he’ll think up next for that dynamic duo, Jake & Laura!
Can’t wait to read it? The Big Brush-Off is available only as an e-book from your favorite online bookseller below. And that e-book is bargain priced at only $2.99 right now, so go for it!
I’d love to get your comments on The Big Brush-Off, Michael Murphy and/or his other work, and/or this review.